Last Sunday, Roger and I went to see Howl. A movie about a poem? Sweet. A movie about a beatnik poem? Sweetness raised to the power of e. Allen Ginsberg wrote the poem Howl in 1955, and more importantly, he performed it for the first time on October 7th, my birthday, 8 years before I was born.
The movie opens with a black and white shot of that poetry reading, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Ginsberg is horn-rimmed and geeky, but energized by the enthusiastic crowd. The room is filled with smoke. But it's 1955, so the hipsters who are digging his poem are still dressed pretty conservatively, and it's only their zeal for his edgy verse that reveals their anti-establishment leanings.
Ginsberg is howling in the poem for Carl Solomon, his dadaist/surrealist friend who had admitted himself to a mental institution and had undergone shock treatments.
Ginsberg starts his poem,
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix;
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
In other scenes, Ginsberg putters around his apartment smoking and making tea, as he talks about poetry, writing, his father and mother, the so-called Beat movement, his friendship with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, his homosexuality, and his relationship with Peter Orvlosky. The conversation comes from transcripts of an actual interview Ginsberg gave in 1957. It was interesting to hear him say he spent a lot of time diddling around as a writer; that the moments when he broke through to some truth were infrequent. And that he had worried about what his dad would think if he read some of his stuff.
The most dramatic moments of the film occured during scenes of the court trial that decided Howl's fate. Shortly after the poem was printed in 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights book store and publisher of Howl, was brought up on obscenity charges. The lawyers for both sides brought in "expert" witnesses, mostly college professors, who either argued that the poem had no literary value, or argued that it did. Ultimately, the judge ruled that literary merit was a subjective thing, and that living in a free society meant that people should be free to print and read poetry that contained a few naughty words. The naughty words: a few slang terms referring to female and male genitalia, and references to sexual acts, both straight and gay.
A footnote at the end of the movie said that the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is still a co-owner of the City Lights Book Store in San Francisco. Wowee. He's like 91 now.
Here are some of my favorite excerpts of Howl:
who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard
wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,
who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow
toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,
who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy
and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,
who loned it through the streets of Idaho
seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels,
who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,
who jumped in limousines with the Chinaman of Oklahoma
on the impulse of winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain,
who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston
seeking jazz or sex or soup,
and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity,
a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa,
who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico
leaving behind nothing but the shadow of dungarees
and the lava and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago,
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe,
and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time—
and who therefore ran through the icy streets
obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy
of the use of the ellipsis catalogue a variable measure and the vibrating plane,
who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed,
and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images
and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness
together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose
and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame,
rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,
the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown,
yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,
and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz
in the goldhorn shadow of the band
and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love
into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry
that shivered the cities down to the last radio